Gods and Divine Magic

Religion.

Like it or not, it’s an integral part of most fantasy settings; particularly those with the concept of divine magic. I’m curious to know, what approach do other worldbuilders take when dealing with interactions between the mortal and the divine?

The way I see it, there are three approaches:

  • Agnostic: Gods are non-sentient, ephemeral, or unconcerned with mortal affairs. The power for divine magic comes from the wielder’s faith (force of will) rather than as a “divine gift”.
  • Channelled: Gods are real but not necessarily sentient, or are unconcerned with mortal affairs... the power of divine magic flows from the priest knowing the correct incantations to invoke that god’s power, rather than the god willingly imparting such power to the priest.
  • Inspired: Gods are real, sentient, and involved (for good or ill) in mortal affairs. They invest their power in their Clergy directly, as a reward for service perhaps, or maybe as a way of influencing the mortal world due to some limitation on their ability to interact with it.
So, worldbuilders, what method do you use for divine magic? Did I miss any approaches out?
 

Staffan

Adventurer
I had an idea for a setting that was somewhere between your Agnostic and Channeled. The idea was that the gods were like in Eberron - they may exist or they may not, but religion is primarily a social construct. But the Domains represented real aspects of reality, and the cleric class represented mystics who had a special bond that allowed them to channel this power. Using this power was a thing you had to learn, but at the same time it was more of an art than a science (hence being associated with Wisdom rather than Intelligence).

Many religions would consider one or more domains linked to their god or gods, and there'd be some clerics who associated with those religions, but you wouldn't have a definite tie between clerics, religions, and gods. You might as well find a cleric of Trickery working for (or running) a shady merchant cartel or a thieves' guild as a temple of Sehanine.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Inspired Channeled. They real, they busy, they may pick up on the first ring of your god call. Or you may just get their service dept.
"Hello Thor Help Line. SMITE LOKI! You are 666th in line. If this an actual emergency press 1."
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Inspired Channeled. They real, they busy, they may pick up on the first ring of your god call. Or you may just get their service dept.
"Hello Thor Help Line. SMITE LOKI! ....Click"
Hi... Loki here. My brother is busy with his beer and pizza How may I help.

Edit to add. What a double post the Gawds must be crazy.
 

MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
I tend towards a Fred Saberhagen approach: the gods are real, but they need a host (usually mortal) to be active. Sometimes the mortal might override the god (possibly permanently--my pantheon is a mix of 4e and PF, and Cayden Cailydon got the God of Alcohol gig and transformed it into the God of Folk Heroes, and it stuck--he also moved from Limbo to Ysgard and then to Arborea to help it stick). Gods are portfolio-driven, not directly soul-driven. Most are aligned with an outsider group (who are very soul-driven) and most of their divine servants are members of the outsider group imbued with the god's power. Organized religion is a means to push the portfolio in a systematic way (also when you have to turn your attention to a different world or are between hosts, this keeps things running).
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Inspired Channeled. They real, they busy, they may pick up on the first ring of your god call. Or you may just get their service dept.
"Hello Thor Help Line. SMITE LOKI! You are 666th in line. If this an actual emergency press 1."
....not sure I appreciate this comment ....


:p
 

tglassy

Adventurer
I usually go with Inspired. I actually prefer how Tolkien handled it, with Eru, the Overgod, or big 'G' God, who created everything, and He gave authority over the world to his Valar, or little 'g' gods, who each took control over an aspect of the universe and added their own personal touches to it. And then I like how FR deals with the portfolios, where there must be a god in charge of *insert portfolio*.

Their job is more to tend to and regulate their own portfolio, but are able to gain in power and influence via worship of Mortals. This encourages them to court mortal churches, and grant power to those who devote themselves to their tenants. But the Overgod needs no worship, He simply is.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
Greater and Elder Gods are Channeled, but are aware of what their followers are doing with the power. They simply focus more on greater aspects of the multi-verse, rather than the mortal realm.

Lesser Gods are Inspired, using their blessed followers to advance their goals in the mortal realm, as they cannot directly interfere except in extreme circumstances.

Demigods are Inspired, but while they have less power to grant to followers, the are less restricted on acting directly.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
My view of the gods has been heavily influenced by Harry Harrison's The Hammer and The Cross series. Basically the gods are real-ish in that they are powered by peoples belief and worship in them. They are real in the sense that they have their own agendas, thoughts and ideas and indirectly manipulate people and events. However, in other ways they are not real in the sense that they are given life by their worshipers.

In addition, rising to godhood is really a reflection of how many people worship that deity and their cultural norms. So people create gods that reflect their beliefs which then provide kind of a feedback loop. I find this an interesting option because it explains the gods aligning with the society at large, and gives me room for "new" and "forgotten" gods. Individuals can indirectly influence gods and people can have an impact in the long term on their own pantheon, although that's not something PCs (or players) realize.
 
It varies for me depending on the tone and setting of a game. I'm much less likely to run a gritty low magic game or something like a rendition of the Christian God as something that can be directly interacted with.

That said, I tend to default/prefer a bit of a combination of your Channeled and Inspired. My portrayal of dieties tends to be that they are filled with motivations and plans involving mortals, though the mortals may not always know the full game being played. Think of it like a grand game of cosmic chess. That said, I like to make my deities not fully snetient as well, in that they embody certain aspects of creation. I.e. the god of storms and sea can't *not* be chaotic any more than the goddess of healing would be unable to stop herself from trying to tend to the wounded. It sort of mirrors outside behavior like demons/devils. There are some things that just fundamentally go against their nature and it is *why* other gods exist and why they care about mortals in the first place. They can do things the gods cannot.
 

jgsugden

Adventurer
Inspired-ish.

In my world, the Gods are out there being Gods. Whie a few were once mortals, most have always been Gods and are concerned with Godly issues. Their worshippers are their batteries. The more they are worshipped, the more powerful they are. Worship takes many forms - it can be based on appreciation, respect or fear. The Gods have power because mortals *give* that power to them through worship.

There are also beings that obtain this power via agreement. Asmodeus had trouble getting people to give him power via worship, but he discovered a way for people to give him power (more efficiently) via contract. He became the first Patron. While he later used the power accumulated from his contracts to also reach Godhood, othe beings have followed his path and created contracts with mortals to exchange warlock powers (or other benefits) for their soul powers and choose to rely upon these agreements rather than attempting to be a God.

These Patrons and Gods are so powerful that their concerns are often incomprehensible to mortals. A War God may direct his priests to wage war on a neighboring country, only to have them pull back and retreat at the moment of victory. A Love God may instruct a priest to coax the leaders of two kingdoms together, only to tell the priest to shatter that relationship at a later date. The most ancient of the Gods represent broad concepts such as 'Good' or 'Evil', but rarely have any direct impact on the mortal worlds at all.
 

cbwjm

I can add a custom title.
I had an idea for a setting that was somewhere between your Agnostic and Channeled. The idea was that the gods were like in Eberron - they may exist or they may not, but religion is primarily a social construct. But the Domains represented real aspects of reality, and the cleric class represented mystics who had a special bond that allowed them to channel this power. Using this power was a thing you had to learn, but at the same time it was more of an art than a science (hence being associated with Wisdom rather than Intelligence).

Many religions would consider one or more domains linked to their god or gods, and there'd be some clerics who associated with those religions, but you wouldn't have a definite tie between clerics, religions, and gods. You might as well find a cleric of Trickery working for (or running) a shady merchant cartel or a thieves' guild as a temple of Sehanine.
I actually had a similar idea. Each domain is one of the greater planes of existence which interact and create the multiverse (the prime tending to be created by the mixing of all domains). This setting had no gods or clerics rather there was a wizard variant white mage who studied a domain and had access to the cleric list. There were still religions, some might have even been sponsored by celestials or fiends but no actual gods.
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
I personally do not like gods powered by belief. Gods created or at least existed long before the mortals and created the mortal races and all that is. So gods powered by belief has never worked for me. I much preferred
The pantheons of Oerth for this reason.
 
I

Immortal Sun

Guest
I keep it simple. There is only "magic" a type of energy that flows through reality that you need either special keywords (arcane) or special permission (divine) to access. This, for me, explains why in D&D Clerics have to "pray" for their spells. They are literally asking their gods if they can cast XYZ today. The god, on the other hand, is a powerful individual who has already figured out how to access the magic of the universe.

Though a god may choose to limit certain spells for specific reasons, most gods simply aren't interested in every one of their followers magical requests. "Praying" is basically filling out a bureaucratic request form, most gods don't read them, just stamp them and approve it. They may check in with a follower from time to time, but more often than not most gods take a "hands off" approach.

This is in part because even small effects by gods are extreme by mortal standards, and in part because there are all sorts of treaties and agreements between the gods on who can do what, when, and where.
 

TwoSix

Lover of things you hate
I'd say agnostic, using those terms as defined.

I tend to draw my own settings use a pretty broad brush, to leave room for the player's ideas. But I generally have a small-c catholic "Church" that does the classic fantasy genre temple things, that's a fixture in most areas under human control. It tends to exist in some tension with nature worshippers (elves and other fae adjacent creatures, deeply rural communities, tends to fit classic "witchcraft" tropes) and ancestor worship (dwarves and halflings, and is the older "root" religion for much of humanity). There are also plenty of smaller cults devoted to particular faeries, demons, or other strong mythical creatures.

It's a simple structure that I can customize easily, and has a lot of classic tropes in it so players can port their concepts in with little work required on my part.

Classes don't really exist in games I run, other than as an occasional template for generic low level NPCs. Magic from NPCS following the tradition of the church maps pretty closely to classic cleric abilities (healing, protection, divination, anti-undead and extraplanar entities). Nature worshippers are obviously more druid-like. Ancestor worship and cults tend to be a hodge-podge rationale for all sorts of specialized abilities. They're usually the reason for extraplanar stuff to enter the real world, while the Church tends to oppose extraplanar activities.
 

Sword of Spirit

Adventurer
None of those categories work for me because they all assume that if gods are people then divine magic has to directly derive from their agency.

Here's how it works in my world. Gods are sentient super-beings. People with lots of hp and powers and some control over aspects of reality (represented by domains, or spheres if you want to go pre-3e). Mortals' access to divine magic originally derived from the gods giving it to ancient priests. Once it was given, it was independent of those gods' agency. The priests have passed it down throughout the ages. The gods may be aware of those who act "in their name" but they don't control or decide if they get spells. If all the gods died clerical magic would still work just fine (with the exception of spells like commune that need someone to commune with).

How invested a god is in the mortal world or their own clergy is a matter of individual inclination. Most gods will punish (not by withholding spells, because they can't really do that directly) those who claim to be their priests but blatantly misuse the divine magic they wield, but some may be more hands off than others.

This isn't some fringe idea--it's basically how 4e D&D defined it right in the description of the cleric class. I don't care for 4e, but I like how they did this. It's also similar to how some other editions did it, although they usually considered gods to be able to deny at least higher level spells to punish their clerics.
 

tglassy

Adventurer
See, that’s how I differentiate Clerics from Warlocks. For me, Warlocks LEARN their magic. If the Patron decides to leave the Warlock for some reason, the Warlock keeps what they’ve earned. They just have to serve the Patron to get better.

But for me, Clerics have no real power at all. It’s not actually them doing it. It’s the god channeling their power through the Cleric. The Cleric gets to “aim the gun”, so to speak, but the god pulls the trigger. If the Cleric wants to use the power granted for an act their god would find abhorant, then the god denies the spell. It doesn’t work. If a god leaves a Cleric, because the Cleric is fundamentally no longer compatible, then they are no longer a Cleric.

Now, I don’t know if I would ever enforce that, except in extreme circumstances. If a Cleric of a god of mercy wants to murder a baby using a Cleric Spell, then I’d probably rule the spell fizzles and doesn’t work. If the Cleric then murders the baby, then their god leaves them, and either they lose all their power, like a Paladin, until they either make amends, or start worshiping a god that would approve of their actions.

That said, what allows a Cleric to cast higher level spells is the power of their faith, not some skill or learning. So as they level up, it is indicative of their faith growing.
 

Kurotowa

Adventurer
I land somewhere between Inspired and Channeled. My version is that gods can bestow power on mortals and find it both easiest and most effective to do so to champions who sincerely believes in the god's dogma. That belief not only forms a connection, it means the Cleric is less likely to go renegade with their granted powers.

This is important because the gods are neither omniscient or omnipotent. They have to spend a lot of attention on cosmic level stuff and can often spare only a little time to be directly checking up on their worshipers. This means most of them set the business of investiture and spell granting on what's effectively autopilot, especially the major gods with widespread followings. There are rules for how things are supposed to work, there are clauses that are supposed to draw more direct attention when things go wrong, but like all blind enforcement there's a lot of room to bend the rules as long as you're not sending up clear red flags. It's actually the minor deities who are more directly involved. With few followers and fewer priests they're far more able to personally vet candidates and provide divine visions. In the larger faiths you have to prove yourself pretty exceptional before you get that sort of personal attention.
 

MechaTarrasque

Adventurer
One thing I have thought of for Pathfinder (although never acted on) is that there are a couple of gods who are basically super versions of one kind of outsider. My idea was that the god was really the hive mind of that outsider group. The more powerful the member of the group you deal with, the closer you get to dealing with the hive mind. So beat up that imp, you are really dealing with Asmodeus, just a little bit of him. Evil is inherently self-destructive, which is why archdevils scheme against each other and demon lords feud, even though it really makes no difference to the hive mind.
 

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